Because the word "pavilion" is related to the French word "papillon," for "butterfly," it is in the nature of pavilions to be, like butterflies' wings, light, open and airy. Knights' tents were pavilions. Nowadays, the name gets used for summerhouses, or subsidiary structures like the Pavilion at the Walters, which occupies the back garden area of the Hackerman House at the Walters Art Gallery.
Entrance to the Pavilion is either through the gallery or -- for those in a mood to eat but not to look at objects -- through a door on Charles Street. Both routes lead to a balcony and then to a grand stairway that concludes in newel posts capped by beautiful wooden globes. From the top of the stairs, the restaurant has magic. It glows with light diffused by skylights in the tall ceiling. It begs to accommodate ball gowns, tuxedos, music and movement.
From below, the room's idiosyncrasies become more apparent. As a seated diner, I found myself feeling dwarfed by the emphatic balcony and stairway, and wishing for one of the ideal tables -- a table in the space between the stairs and the tall, splashing fountain.
Because dinner is not served at the Pavilion, the menu suggests an intelligent variety of mostly casual ways to appease hunger: "starters," salads, pastas, hot and cold sandwiches, entrees and desserts. Costs fall between about $4 and $11. There's no minimum charge. That means it's possible to order just a sweet ($3.25-$5) or an espresso ($2). Starting this month, high tea will be served between 3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m., Tuesdays through Fridays.
In our experience, a light eater could dine pleasurably on a starter and a glass of wine. Starters were outstanding. A lobster and corn chowder ($3.75) contained an appetizing assortment of colorful bites -- lobster, corn, carrot, celery, potato, little bits of ham, and onion. Their freshness and the first-class, cream-enriched seafood broth that bathed them made the chowder one of the best of the preparations we tasted.
An order for hot pepper calamari with two sauces ($4.95) brought a heaped plate of sparely battered and fried squid rings and tentacles, impeccably greaseless, crisp and crunchy. The two sauces were a cheerfully ordinary mixture of tomato and hot chilies, and a surprising "spicy Thai" combination, part sweet, light syrup, part something acid and part pickled hot chilies.
Crisp almond chicken fingers ($4.95) meant shafts of chicken breast, somewhat dry but wonderfully coated in a panoply of sliced blanched almonds that had browned and turned crisp in the cooking process. What cinched our pleasure in the dish was a sauce, the consistency of heavy cream, that tasted of mayonnaise, vinegar, sugar syrup and mustard.
The menu lists Caesar, Nicoise, Waldorf and spinach salads, as well as a Pavilion salad, of field greens, mushrooms, tomatoes and cucumbers. A Caesar salad with peppered beef tenderloin ($8.25) was composed of sliced romaine leaves that, for us, were too heavily dressed with an oil and cream emulsion light on garlic. Thin, raucously peppercorned slices of beef steak lay across the top.
Much better was an order from the pasta section of the menu of angel hair pasta with Florida rock shrimp, spinach, sweet basil and garlic ($9.95). The shrimp appeared as particles of shrimp. ,, The spinach was shreds of spinach. Together with an exuberance of garlic, the elements combined to suffuse the pasta with flavor, while leaving an impression of delicacy.
A grilled salmon triple-decker sandwich ($8.95) crossed the BLT with a good, fresh salmon steak. I thought the sandwich took extra life from a pungent tarragon mayonnaise served to the side, but my husband reserved his real enthusiasm for the skins-on -- deep-fried chips of potato. We both agreed it was a likable sandwich.
From the entrees list, we tried a quite forgettable grilled breast of chicken ($8.75), with shoestring potatoes that defied the fork, and a salmon quiche ($7.95) that had a tender crust and attractive salmon flavors, but that came with a salad too heavily burdened with a creamy dressing. We concluded: better to choose from higher up on the menu.
Desserts will appeal most to those who like brash, sweet-toothed extravagance. Exceptions: a flavor-vague pineapple sorbet ($3.75) and a seasonal fruit cobbler ($3.25) that begged for a biscuit or a pate brisee. Both the chewy chocolate bourbon pecan pie ($4.50) and a chocolate truffle torte ($4.50) were more dense than subtle. Wilting mint leaves adorned all the desserts -- even a creme caramel gussied up with whipped cream and berry sauce ($3.25). All arrived besplattered with dusts -- cinnamon, cocoa, confectioners' sugar. *
Next: Weber's on Boston
The Pavilion at the Walters, 600 N. Charles St., 727-2233
Hours: Lunch and light fare 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Accepts: ** /- *
Features: Eclectic menu
No-smoking area: All non-smoking
Wheelchair access: Yes